Get your Xanax and Ativan ready: Conway School Board elections are upon us.

Early voting is underway for two seats on the only school board I’ve ever known to spark so much controversy that you’d think folks were lining up for a glimpse of Avatar 3 instead of just a scheduled public meeting.

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Election Day is Tuesday.

The cast in this real-life drama features incumbent Jennifer Cunningham, the board’s current vice president, who seldom speaks during meetings. She’s seeking a second term to an at-large seat on the board. Challenging her is Sheila Franklin, a former Head Start teacher and juvenile probation/intake officer.

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Sheila Franklin

Residents in Zone 5 also can vote on the race between incumbent Bill Milburn, a retired Conway police major, and Trey Geier, a former Army captain and combat veteran who served two tours in Iraq. Milburn was appointed to fill a vacant seat in October and is now seeking a full term.

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The races are by law nonpartisan, but candidates wanting you to know they’re  Republicans invariably call themselves conservative.

Milburn is letting voters know about his religion, too. In a Facebook post earlier this week, Milburn wrote, “We need Christian people to come out and vote.” He urged them to vote for himself and Cunningham and then to get their friends to vote.

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I don’t know about Milburn, but I personally know of Christians who are voting for the other two candidates just as I know Christians who are Democrats and Christians who are Republicans.

All of the candidates except Cunningham replied to a few emailed questions. On campaign fliers, Cunningham spoke of her “conservative values.” and gave herself a report card featuring four A-pluses for increasing teacher pay and championing parental rights among other things. On another flier, Cunningham touted her role in removing “sexually explicit books” from a school library. What she didn’t mention was that the only targeted books were those about LGBTQ+ youths.

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Jennifer Cunningham

When Cunningham does speak, listen closely. On one of the books she opted to ban, she said she couldn’t finish reading it. Maybe she’d have appreciated it more if she had. That’s the case with so many books, from murder mysteries to the Bible.

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Another indication that Cunningham is no advocate for LGBTQ+ youth came with a recent Facebook comment where a woman had posted, “We have a mentally ill person trying to get say over our kids! This is unacceptable. These abominations need to be called out!! Please educate yourselves on the candidates and then do the right thing and vote for encumbant [sic] Jennifer Cunningham.” Cunningham then commented, “Thanks so much for posting this Cassie Hill!!!” After word spread of the post, Cunningham deleted her comment, and the post soon vanished as well.

Franklin has confirmed she is not mentally ill. Nor is Jess Disney, who was seeking the position but withdrew, though her name is still on the ballot. Disney is politically savvy, well-spoken and transgender.

Franklin has strong ties to the school district. Her youngest daughter is an assistant basketball coach and the head tennis coach. That daughter was among the coaches who temporarily were forbidden from wearing Black History Month T-shirts at basketball games earlier this year. Franklin’s son-in-law is the assistant principal at one of Conway’s elementary schools, and her husband has served 29 years as an administrator there.

Neither Cunningham nor Milburn was apparently involved in the short-lived T-shirt ban. Still, Milburn defended it even after the superintendent and some board members apologized.

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Bill Milburn

“The issue with the T-shirts was not the content and no students were restricted from wearing them,” Milburn said. “The coaching staff wearing anything other than the normal Wampus Cat apparel while coaching a game without talking to the athletic director in advance was the issue.”

Franklin has been careful not to criticize any board members personally. She said she understands “exactly what a nonpartisan campaign means” and has been careful to conduct one.

“There’s absolutely no room for politics in a public school. If someone’s platform or values are focused only on being conservative, Republican, liberal, or Democrat, then I don’t understand how they could truly serve the people who don’t look like me, think like me, or believe like me,” Franklin said in an email. “Therefore, my platform and values are to serve, be a leader, to advocate, and to encourage excellence in our students, educators, administrators, staff, and our community.”

Franklin said she believes the school board should focus on academic goals, retaining quality educators and “getting back to the core values of our school which are *Students First *A Staff Committed to Excellence *Value and Respect Diversity *Provide Innovative Educational Opportunities *Cultivate Community Relationships *Maintain a Safe and Caring Environment.”

Milburn said in an email that his 27 years of law enforcement experience, including time as a SWAT leader, give him “a unique viewpoint that my opponent does not have” when it comes to school safety. Milburn said he also helped initiate the school resource officer program in 2000 and later supervised it.

Trey Geier

Geier said his Army career gave him “experience seeking out subject matter experts when making informed decisions, making decisions under pressure, remaining calm throughout emotional circumstances, and working with a diverse group of people.”

“I want the focus to be on the retention of veteran teachers and administrators, listening to experts before any policy is considered, allowing transparency for and engagement of the community, and bringing decorum back to the school board,” Geier said.

Milburn was not on the board when it dealt with bathrooms and gender or with the book bans, though he has repeatedly defended the restroom policy, saying it was a compromise. Under the policy, students and adults must use the bathroom that corresponds with the gender on their original birth certificates or ask to use a single-use restroom — a provision that could out some transgender students.The problem is, the superintendent said the district already had that policy in practice. Still, the board voted unanimously to put the policy in writing, thereby getting state and national attention as well as hallelujahs from the far right.

Geier said he’s running for the board because he has three children in the school district, “and I’m concerned.”

“The current school board has focused on a culture war and taken their focus off of the education of ALL kids in the Conway School District. My kids, all kids, deserve a school board that is laser-focused on education,” Geier said.

“Coming out of COVID, our test scores and school ratings are not where they should be. We’ve lost institutional knowledge as valuable teachers and administrators have left the district,” Geier said.

“I have been disheartened by the current members’ focus on a divisiveness over the wellbeing of students and teachers in the district. Our students, our neighbors, have been hurt by things said and done by those on the school board,” he said.

The same board, likewise before Milburn’s membership, also considered but did not adopt a huge list of topics that educators wouldn’t be allowed to utter in classrooms or other school events — some involving basic history. To his credit, Milburn referred to the list, compiled at one or more board members’ request by attorney Jay Bequette, as a “ridiculous list.”

Milburn said the board’s focus in the coming two years should be reading proficiency and school safety. He also mentioned being sure to comply with all provisions of Gov. Sarah Huckabee SandersLEARNS Act that’s set to reshape K-12 education in Arkansas.

Milburn said he has no problem moving board meetings to a larger venue where more people can attend in person rather than livestream as many must now do. The current meeting room is quite small, and would-be attendees have been turned away. Both Geier and Franklin said they would prefer a larger venue.

“The community doesn’t trust the board at present and continuing to hold the meetings in the smaller room only adds to those feelings of mistrust,” Geier said. “I have been in the overflow room on board meeting nights, which is larger than the actual room, and understand the frustration that comes with feeling excluded. I don’t think the livestream provides adequate community engagement, especially when multiple board members fail to turn on their microphones and are not able to be heard online. Moving the meetings is, perhaps, the most simple gesture with the greatest impact for rapport building purposes.”

Said Franklin: “This is a public school, and every board member is voted in by the members in the community. I really don’t know why these same people that vote us in to represent them and our children don’t get a seat at the table.”

The ballot also includes a millage tax measure. It would only continue, not change, the current millage.

Early voting continues through Monday, but not over the weekend, at the Faulkner County Courthouse on Locust Street in Conway. If you vote Thursday, you may need to park in the back because a National Day of Prayer event is planned starting shortly before noon in the courthouse’s front yard that day.

If you vote Friday, go early because that’s the opening day of the annual Toad Suck Festival in downtown Conway. If you wait until election day, you can then vote at the McGee Center on College Avenue or at Agape Community Temple of Servants on Ingram Street.